Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 8, “The Promise of Technology”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

This chapter begins Part 2 (The Character of Technology), the first half of which (chs 8-12) aims to describe and articulate the paradigm of technology, and the second half of which (chs 13-16) aims to ask how we have come to terms with technology politically and socially. The thesis which Borgmann will be following throughout is that technology, as the characteristic way we engage with the world, is guided by a basic pattern. This pattern, however, like many deeply ingrained patterns, can be impossible to see. This is essentially the observation that the features of our worldviews which are fundamental (in the “background”, so to speak) are themselves not open to our introspection without some serious effort.

That effort for Borgmann is put to use in returning to the first articulations of technology. They go back to the founding event of modernity: the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was the original modern liberation movement, and thus technology (as a liberating force) is usually seen as a corollary of it; Borgmann claims, to the contrary, that technology is a primary current in that stream. Descartes, for example, calls out technology as an obvious tool of intellectual liberation, describing its potential for self-determination (making us “masters and possessors of nature”), for freedom from labor, and for freedom to enjoy one’s faculties.

The proper grounding of this vision was not seen until the middle of the 19th century, however. Before that, machines and efficiency multiplied, but with a corresponding degree of toil and misery. Eventually, industrialized nations saw the fruits of the new technological order, and strong arguments indeed can be made for the disburdening character of technology (disburdening us from disease, hard manual labor, etc…).

This promise of technology (of self-determination and freedom) is reiterated constantly in all kinds of social and political rhetoric. The implication is that the mature technology of an advanced industrial society is continuous with the liberating technology which, for example, helped more and more people survive and do business in North American winters. Borgmann doesn’t take this for granted, and offers modern advertising as an example of the macabre and seemingly trivial ends to which technology is now put. Marketers selling us “world-class cuisine” without leaving home (through the use of the microwave) seems somehow hollow when put next to vaccinations of serious diseases.

So, we can ask several questions about the promise of technology. Can technology be successful in delivering this promise, even on its own terms? Will it impose new burdens to replace the old (a pernicious irony which can be seen quite clearly in the traffic jam, for example). Can it fulfill its promise in a just way, without merely sweeping toil under the rug of the developing nations? And finally, is the promise well-conceived and worth keeping to begin with?

The promise presents the character of technology in broad outline. It is essentially “the general procurement of liberty and propserity in the principled and effective manner that is derived from modern science” (39). But is this outline too broad? Does it allow for technology to descend into meaningless “improvements”? As Borgmann says, “Initial genuine feats of liberation appear to be continuous with the procurement of frivolous comfort” (39). If this is the case, it is perhaps worrying.

At any rate, Borgmann agrees that we could spend much fruitful time looking at the history of the promise of technology (through e.g. Heidegger), but in this book we’ll be moving on to the contemporary analysis. This will begin in earnest with the next chapter, “The Device Paradigm”, which is one of the central chapters of the book. Until then…

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Open Source at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Apart from being the project lead of Appium, he has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver BC, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit for more.

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